Teaching the Concept of Line and Space Notes
to Children Who Seem Slow to Learn It

It's not uncommon for a teacher to have a beginner who, after several weeks, is still having difficulty grasping the concept that music noteheads sit on lines or spaces. There seems to be visual confusion about which notehead is what type. If this is the case, we then have the barrier to reading, for which stepwise notehead movement must be understood.

Many times, students with learning disabilities exhibit such confusion after several weeks, but not all. Many children who can learn adequately with the strategies used most commonly (that is, they are "not learning disabled") also have difficulty with the problem of differentiating between line and space notes. In fact, expect all child beginners to have this difficulty to some degree. Usually a week or so of gentle repetition is enough to solve the problem, but occasionally a student is unusually slow to master this concept.

Take a page from the elementary school math teachers: use manipulatives. Also incorporate the maxim of moving from movements of large muscles to those of smaller muscles (ex.: children learn to walk - - large muscles - - before they learn to draw - - small muscles).

Here is a sequence of "games" I have used successfully with such students. I hope they will help you or give you some ideas for strategies of your own.

Have the student -be- a line note and a space note. Stretch out string on the floor and make 5 staff lines. The strings should be 12" or so apart so there is plenty of room to maneuver. I'd leave the clefs out of it entirely at this point. Just use a clefless staff made out of strings.

Explain that "a space note fills the space and a line note has a line right through it." Of course, don't expect this to be absorbed immediately. You're going to repeat this (calmly) as many times as necessary in the course of this exercise. Make sure you select a phrase you can remember and use again and again. Eventually, the student will hear your voice in her head and use it as a "reference book" for which kind of note is which.

So, now, the staff is on the floor. Ask her to be a line note and then a space note, demonstrating first. Discuss carefully where your shoes are: are they filling a space or on a line?

If a parent is present, ask him to call out "line" or "space." Alternative: ask the student to choose and state "what she's going to be" before she moves to that place. Another way to vary this routine (since there are only two possibilities!!) is to draw pieces of paper from a box. If the child can read, write line or space on the papers; later you can go to pictures of line and spaces notes on a clefless staff (more about this below). Or, roll a die (how about a big fuzzy one from the auto parts store?), with odd numbers as line notes and even numbers as space notes. Of course, this presumes the child has the ability to distinguish odd and even numbers. You can always paste on pieces of cardboard with some system to indicate whether a space or a line note is indicated with then die is rolled. You get the idea.

To ramp up the difficulty, perhaps at the same lesson but maybe not, ask her to be a "high" line note (you and mom sit at the "bottom" of the staff for her point of reference) or a "low" space note. Don't forget "middle."

Another way to vary drills is to ask the student to "be the teacher." This approach is very appealing to kids through about grade 3, and it's in my bag of tricks all the time; even older students get a honk out of it (albeit for a shorter period of time!). In this variant, she gives the direction to you or the parent and then "checks your work." If it's correct, she tells you. If it's not, she shows you where to move to make it right. The "teacher" directs both you and the parent as "students." Much giggling all around, as sometimes you/the parent stand in the wrong place on purpose. You'll learn a lot about how her schoolwork is "corrected" by the amount of vehemence she employs when she discovers you're in the wrong place. Do the same game by adding the "high, middle, and low" pitch concepts.

Ask the parent to be sure the family plays these games at home. Get a pretty paper tote bag - - maybe you can find a musical- or piano-themed one - - and put the staff lines in there. Make a big deal about the presentation of this special bag - - whisk it out (ta da!) and say she did so well that you thought maybe she'd like to play the game at home, too. Twine each line around a piece of cardboard (or an old business card) to prevent a snarl. Perhaps she could decorate it (a plain bag) with stickers or drawings of her choice as "homework" the first week. Give this game a fun name. The idea is to make this drill special for her and unique to her.

After she is at ease with her body as the note, have her move paper plates around on "her staff." She is using smaller muscles (arms/hands). She is no longer the object, and you've started the move toward the abstract (the idea that objects - - and later, written symbols - - are stand-ins for other things).

The next step is to reduce the scale, where the student is using even smaller muscles (hands/fingers) and smaller objects. Draw a staff on a big piece of poster board, and she uses checkers or something similar as the noteheads. (By the way, no stems; just stemless noteheads here for all of these games.) Then you eventually can get it down to the size of a piece of typing paper (8.5" by 11"), upon which she uses M&Ms for the noteheads (and gets to eat them afterwards, no matter how well she does).

Now you make the leap in the abstract...to two-dimensional things, such as paper and pencil. The ultimate goal is the leap to paper and printed notes.

For children who are having trouble with the lines and space concept, I like to check that they understand Piaget's idea of "object permanence." First I draw a white space-note notehead on large-scale staff paper (staff lines are 2" apart; make your own and photocopy) and ask, "This note is filling the space" and get confirmation from the student that she sees that this is so. Then I draw a white line-note notehead. "Do you see the line going through the note? That makes this a line note." Double check with student. "Now I'm going to make the notes black." I draw a black space note. Here's the leap: that the line is still there covered up by or inside of the black notehead. I make a fist and say, "Here's the note." Then I take a pencil and grasp it in my fist; it looks rather like an olive on a toothpick. "Where is the pencil when you can't see it? Is it still inside my hand?" Yes, of course it is. I have the student do the same exercise with the pencil. "Inside your hand, too. Ok, here's what happens when we draw a line note," I say and then draw a big black notehead (in pencil) on the staff paper. "Where is the line?" The student points to the track the line is taking through the notehead. "Right! Still inside. That's a line note. Now you draw a line note." If the note bumps a little over onto adjacent lines, don't fuss; only if it is so vague that it could be mistaken for two or more pitches.

The staff shrinks steadily, week by week as she indicates she is ready, until it is the size of her printed music. Beginner music is always printed oversized; don't take her down to the size a more experienced musician would find!

Eventually, you move to stepping up and down on the staff.

Obviously, you can't spend months just doing this drill. You must supplement with other skills she'll need:

Somewhere along the line you and your student have discussed finger numbers. I draw around both hands and have them write in the numbers. If extra drill is required, as the parent to do the same at home and ask the student such things as, "Color finger number two red." Later it can be, "Color finger number two of the left hand red."

Other concurrent activities might include a technical drill (I discuss my five-finger drill in my file on the technical regimen I use in my studio), body movement to recordings, and so on.

You will have to do these sorts of things until steps and skips on paper are well-established and you can move on to printed songs. Prepare to be very creative!!

Your efforts will be well-rewarded, not only by teaching this student to read, but you'll have these songs, games, and other tools ready-made for the next student with the same difficulty.

The next steps in my studio are contained in another file about how to teach notereading.

How I Teach Notereading

Now arrange line and space notes on a clefless staff, using only steps. Write no more than 12 notes. This called a "snake song" because it looks like a snake. A snake song may be played with both hands, one hand, the nose, or any other sort of fingering the student wishes to use. Do not mention "strange" fingering at all! The idea here is note-reading only! Don't distract the student with any other concern.

Ask the parent to come observe so this may be duplicated at home exactly as you are doing it at the lesson.

With the "vee" between the index and third fingers, isolate the first two noteheads. Now we are at the wall! Ask the student to play any white note. (If it's a low or high one, just scoot over on the bench so the student can reach it. Don't suggest he choose "a middle note;" nothing negative here.) Point to the first note and say, "Here is the note you just played." Move your pencil point (this is better than a finger because it's got an unambiguous tip). "Here is the note we're going to." Move your pencil back and forth slowly from note to note. "Is this note [your pencil point comes to rest on the second note] above or below the note where you are [pencil point goes here and then back to the destination note]." Don't move the pencil point quickly; take your time so the student's eyes can follow while her brain is also working at absorbing what you just said.

We hope the student will be able to recognize that it is a step.

If not, prompt her: "Is this a step up or a step down?" If the answer is incorrect, betray no annoyance or disappointment. It's ok. You've laid a good foundation, and this child -will- be able to learn this concept. Move the pencil only from left to right (picking up the pencil point after the second note is reached and going back to the first notehead) and say, "Is this note [second one] above or below this note [first one]." The discussion continues with a remark that "to get to a higher note, you need to move -up-, so this is a step up." Write one snake song for each day of practice and ask the parent to do just one daily with the child. This will be tough hoeing at the beginning, so just one is plenty! At the lesson, select just one to "spot check."

To make the snake songs more complex, add skips. Then add repeated notes. Last, add notes on leger lines above and below the staff, but only a space note and a line note above and below; that's all you'll need for now. These placements correspond to small B and Middle C; and Middle C and one-line D. (I teach Middle C position, and these remarks are predicated on that.)

The snake songs usually are mastered in one or two weeks for most students, but perhaps longer with students who have had difficulty seeing the difference between line and space notes (remember that things may still be swirling around" for this sort of student).

Now we move to "worm songs." You guessed it: shorter than snake songs. The catch here, though, is that while the student may choose the starting [white] note, she must use the hand and finger designated, such as LH 4. You must write these songs with precision and check them carefully for errors: the range must lie exactly within the five-finger span. Mention this to the child and also add that there will "plenty of fingers" to play the song and that when there is a step she should use the adjacent finger and skip a finger if the notes read a skip.

Use the "vee" of your fingers technique described above to isolate the notes of interest. Make the first couple of worm songs easy - - no repeated notes, no notes outside the staff - - to ensure instant success. Write 6-8 notes maximum. These songs are more difficult; compensate by making them shorter. You don't want your student to give up in fatigue! If the songs are this length, write two a day and let the parent call the shots if he think the child cannot do two every day.

After worm songs, in my studio, we move to the grand staff with Middle C-only songs, with Middle C written exactly mid-way between the two staves so it looks exactly the same. Now's the time to introduce stems (stem up = RH; stem down = LH) -and- to introduce the fundamentals of rhythmic steadiness by tapping and saying "one" with each note the student plays. I also write 1 in blue pencil below each note as further reinforcement.

Much praise because this is *real* music notation "just like all musicians read! Now you can read music, too!" I ask the parent ahead of time if they will allow the child to pick the dinner menu or receive a special treat (chocolate?!) in celebration of this major milestone.

Notice that the progression in notereading has been from complete freedom to specificity. That's the way notation is: as soon as we have the clef, we not longer are allowed to choose our starting note.

The next step is to add small B, which is the note just below Middle C. At this time, move the Middle C into normal position. ("We're going to move Middle C near the staff because it's easier to see this way.") The next new note is small A; I add another bass clef note because most people have more difficulty readying bass clef. Let's start with that one! As you have guessed, one-line D above Middle C is next. I usually pause here for a few songs before introducing one-line E to make sure learning is solid.

And now a fervent plea:

Skip over songs in the method book that have eighth-notes in them!

No way is any beginner student (even an adult) ready for eighth-notes!! Please! I beg you!


You also may be interested in reading the questions and answers in the Pedagogy Q&A section concerning prolonged difficulty in learning to read notation and "mirror reading".

copyright 1999, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me for reprint permission.


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